Compassion starts in the brain and extends to the bedroom
I once arrived late to a school bake sale with my then five year-old son. When he discovered all things chocolate had sold out, he broke into a wail I hadn’t heard since the day his beloved cat stuffie was left on a departing train. My impulse was to shriek, “Shut up! It’s only chocolate.” But he was tired, he was hungry and all he wanted was chocolate. And because his frontal lobe was still woefully underdeveloped, he flipped out.
Anyone who has raised kids has experienced these moments. How we react to them is what defines us as parents. Instead of chastising our kids during their irrational tantrums, we sometimes manage to take them into our arms and soothe their broken little hearts. The more we do this, the more they come to trust us. Parenting, if done well, is like training for the compassion Olympics.
I just wish this wasn’t so hard to do with our partners.
When I fall in love with a man, it’s like compressing the experience of falling in love with my child over fourteen years into about three days. Which means I don’t do it as well. He’s all adorable and fascinating on Day 1. By Day 2 we’ve reached the peak of adolescent snark. By Day 3 I’m shoving college applications in his face and buying him new luggage. It’s hard to accept a fellow adult can occasionally be as immature and repulsive as our proto-humans. When disagreements arise, we feel attacked or assume the worst of our loved one. We enter into power struggles over the trash and view our partner’s failure to put it out again as a passive aggressive response to our not putting the cap on the toothpaste.
When my son used to ask me three times in ten minutes what he should be doing to get ready for school, I could eventually answer him calmly rather than shouting, “I already told you twice!” I would remind myself he was a young boy and could only think about Lego and Minecraft and chocolate. Yet, when considering extending this kind of generosity toward a man who is pushing my buttons, I justify my irritation by logically refusing to treat my partner as a child. But I’m rethinking this. Because we’re all still, at times, idiot children.
I’m getting better at accepting the imperfections of other people, regardless of age. Bad behavior is not an aberration of who we are but part of who we are. When we let go of our expectations of how a person should behave, and simply deal kindly with how they are behaving, not only does the tension drop, sometimes we experience the jaw-dropping joy of keeping our shit together. I think they call this grace. It’s taken me about five decades to get pretty good at this skill. Of course, we should only display grace up to the point it’s clear that being a jerk is someone’s primary modus operandi.
Studies have shown that displaying compassion, for others and ourselves as well, is beneficial to our health. In a recent one by the National Institutes of Health, in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, “Self-compassion and compassion from others were associated with lower psychological distress and higher social safeness. Compassion for others was associated with lower depressive symptoms.”
Image by Bruno Kelzner on Unsplash
Compassion from others is a key point. You can’t give until you know what it feels like to get. A man once stopped pleasuring me and abruptly got up from the bed saying, “I guess you’re not getting an orgasm tonight.” That made me cry. He certainly wasn’t extending me any compassion for my leisurely orgasmic response. Had I put on my compassion lenses, he was probably feeling woefully inadequate as a lover. I just needed to educate him about how my body worked.
I’ve had the good fortune of dating several men who don’t turn into defensive counter attackers during disagreements. I define this as their ability to show me compassion during conflict rather than what I used to call it: lily-livered fear of pissing me off. The best of them manage to turn my irritations into something that makes me laugh. That’s a superhuman skill. When someone succeeds in not being an asshole when I’ve been one to them, I feel like the Grinch when he realizes the Whos in Whoville are singing at the top of their tiny lungs even without Christmas presents.
Several studies have found that levels of inflammation in the body, thought to be a trigger for cancer and other disorders, are lower in people whose happiness is derived from living with purpose and consideration for others. Living a life directed by compassion and meaning ( also known as “eudaimonic happiness”) resulted in lower inflammatory markers in the blood. On the other hand, people who reported being happy because they lived a “good life” by focusing on their own pleasure ( also known as “hedonic happiness”) had higher inflammation levels. The consensus is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and purpose will benefit your long term health. And I’ll wager finding purpose in getting your lover to orgasm will make her think twice about leaving the cap off the toothpaste.
Compassion is its own gift. It’s like compounding interest: Build up your capital, avoid drawing down your principal, and you can’t help but get richer over time. Then it becomes easier to give away your wealth of good vibes. I hope the long days of winter bring you much joy and thoughts about the most important gifts you have to give, to yourself and everyone else.